Second read of Bob Marshall book is just as enjoyable as the first

“Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks,” edited by Phil Brown

The opportunity to hear a talk recently by Adirondack Explorer Editor Phil Brown led me to reread “Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks” (Lost Pond Press), a collection of Marshall’s writings that Brown edited and published in 2006.

My second time through these pages proved every bit as rewarding as the first.

There are several reasons that North Country readers should become familiar with Marshall (1901 to 1939), who began experiencing the North Country via childhood summers at his family camp on Lower Saranac Lake. For one thing, he was 46’er number one, a distinction earned at a time when few peaks had trails to the top. The efforts of such venerable guides as Orson Phelps notwithstanding, mountain hiking was still coming into its own as a recreational activity during the early 20th century. Now there are more than 10,000 people registered as having climbed all Adirondack summits over 4,000 feet.

Secondly, Marshall was a bit obsessive about his hiking. He kept track of everything. And I mean everything. It’s worth looking at this book just to see his ratings of difficulty and satisfaction of each climb. Haystack, by the way, ranked first among the High Peaks for scenic value, and Nye last. The vista from Whiteface “was not all it was cracked up to be by any means.” Marshall was also indefatigable. His exploits included racing against the clock. It’s beyond my comprehension, but he sought records for the number of peaks climbed in a single 24-hour period.

Third, his Adirondack experience triggered both his personal and professional life. One included essay tells how he decided on a life in forestry, a course of study he supplemented with a master’s degree from Harvard in forestry, and a Johns Hopkins Ph.D. in plant physiology. He later explored Alaska and the American West extensively during a career with the National Forest Service.

Fourth, he may have hiked for fun, but he studied nature to further public education and preservation. Moreover, he sought to leave a legacy that would live long after him. Marshall founded the Wilderness Society, one of America’s great protectors of the environment. As it turned out, his precocious efforts along these lines were timely. Marshall died suddenly at the much-too-young age of 39.

If there’s an emotion regularly conjured up by his writings, it’s one of joy. Few people maximized the pleasure of being in the great outdoors as much as Marshall did. And if there’s a personal trait that was important in his life, it was stamina. Nothing stopped him when he was on a roll. Even on the day of his record-setting trek in 1932 up 13 (no typo here — it was thirteen) Adirondack High Peaks, he added a last-minute jaunt up Mount Jo solely so as to exceed 13,600 feet in total ascent.

The book goes beyond merely High Peaks. Also featured are stories about his time at summer camp as part of his program at the New York State Collegeof Forestry. While there, Marshall used his leisureto thoroughly explore the Cranberry Lake region. His descriptions serve as a reminder that one need not ascend mountains in order to enjoy Adirondack scenery. Not surprisingly, he also rated every pond he saw for its attractiveness.

Let me be clear that this book is not a traditional biography. One hopes that some writer will eventually take on that project. But this volume serves as a testament to how strong a hold the Adirondacks can have on a person, and to what lengths that person might go once so inspired.

An appreciation by his brother George opens the book. There’s also legendary environmentalist Paul Schaefer’s memories of meeting Bob on a mountaintop. Phil Brown supplies useful introductory comments to most chapters. But mostly it’s the writings of Marshall.

Despite Marshall’s frequent obsession with speed, this book is one best enjoyed by reading slowly. There’s amazement at how much detail he managed to observe even while hiking at brisk paces.

It’s also a testimony to one man’s achievement of such joy in both his work and his recreational time, which became too intertwined for separation.

I suspect the book will appeal to all who have experienced and loved the Adirondacks.


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